Monday, January 31, 2011

Putting the Agua in Managua

Doing laundry
I have figured out how to take a shower with less than one gallon of water: It starts with a bucket of water and a small plastic bowl.  I scoop water out of the bucket and pour it over my hair.  I then rub the water that has dripped and splashed down off my hair over as much of my upper body as I can.  I take another small scoop and get the rest of my arms and torso wet.  Then comes the shampoo and soap – it helps to use liquid soap – which I lather into my hair and upper body.  The next scoop of water rinses off the soap, and trickles down over the rest of my body, helped by my hands to get the spots gravity didn't find.  More soap as needed, and then rinse the lower body, and you're done!  If you wash in a wide bucket, you can then use that water to flush the toilet.
Agua Bastante: one night's collection.
In the first ten days of living in the Casa Misionera, my house got water five nights – one of which I slept through – after a six day stretch with no water.  The Casa, like most houses in the neighborhood, has indoor plumbing, but water in Managua comes on sporadically.  It tends to arrive here sometime between 2 and 5 in the morning, although just a block further downhill, it will come closer to 10 PM.  We all have storage vessels – tanks, barrels, buckets, and bottles – to keep what we need for the day, or in some cases the week.  The Casa has one 50 gallon barrel, two five gallon buckets with lids, five large open buckets that hold about 20 gallons in total, and twelve one-gallon jugs.  I figure I can go up to about three weeks, without having to skip showers or washing clothes, if needed.  Of course, as a gringo, it is not recommended that I drink this water, so I buy five gallon jugs of drinking water from the pulpuria next door every few days.  Rather than see it as an inconvenience, I love this relationship with water!  Clean water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in our global industrial society, thanks to the spread of factories and air pollution, increased urban use, and destruction of our natural ecosystems.  I want to be conscious of my water use, and to minimize it while I keep in mind that my behavior, wherever I am, affects others' access to clean water.  That's harder to do when I pay pennies for water that flows whenever I turn a knob.
The utility sink
The first night that I woke in time to catch the water, I heard the sound of splashing next door, as well as the hum of my neighbor's pump.  Pumps have become more popular in the neighborhood, as the municipal system offers just a trickle of water most days, and it takes far less time to fill your containers with the pump.  Of course, this means that those without pumps get less water than they would otherwise while you are pumping.  That first night with water I ran excitedly from my bed and turned on the tap, only to find that Gladys' pumping meant that I got none.  I went back to bed, and lay awake until the pump turned off, when I tried again.  I managed to collect about eight gallons before the water cut out again – more than enough for me for one day.  The next night, the water came on again, at about 4:30, and I was able to collect another eight gallons.  Gladys didn't need to pump, as she had collected enough the night before.  Finally, after about a week, the water came on at about 2:30 in force, and I filled every container in the house and I was able to turn the tap off for the first time, at about 4 AM.  You can imagine what this does to one's sleep schedule, and of course we go to bed with one ear open to listen for the water.
Catching water
It turns out that the Casa Misionera also has a pump, and a tank on the roof, which would allow us to use the plumbing whenever it is full.  At first I wasn't a fan of the pump, as I felt like using it would deprive my less-privileged neighbors of water, as Gladys' pump had done me that first night.  However, seeing how getting a full water collection allows one to skip nights of collecting, I felt a little better about it.  I also I imagine sharing water with my neighbors in need – sharing is one of my favorite ways to build relationships and goodwill in community.  Our pump, though, was broken.  The previous inhabitants of the house, who bought the pump in the first place, had left the pump on long enough when there was no water that it overheated and stopped working.  I had offers from two friends to help fix it: Fernando, who has been without work since returning to be with his family after a year working in Costa Rica, and Jerry, a young man who maintains his family's pump.  Another thing I love about Nicaragua is the common practice of do-it-yourself repairs.  Fernando removed the pump from the plumbing and put a provisional pipe in its place, and helped me get started taking the pump apart, and then Jerry came and had a look at it, finished taking it apart, and gave the final verdict: the copper wires were burned through – the only thing this pump was good for was recycling.  We gave the pump to some kids, who will get 40 cordoba per pound for the copper, and maybe a little for the rest of the pump.
Fernando installed a temporary fix
Bomba no sirve
My aspirations of working faucets dashed, I get to continue my ultra low-use practices.  Now the question is whether to invest in a new pump, or keep collecting water in half-gallon increments out of the backyard faucet?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

You Say You Want a Revolution: US Democracy and Nicaragua

An activist in Cairo takes subversive action.
In light of the amazing show of power by the people of Egypt, following on those in Tunisia, I am posting this sermon I gave at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. 
Delivered March 2, 2008

Communal spider web.
Spiders can be divided into two simple categories: solitary spiders, which are the ones we are most familiar with – spinning small webs in the corners of our homes and gardens; and social spiders, who combine their efforts to spin large webs in order to catch clouds of flying insects which are shared among members of the web-weaving group.
One hot day last August, a worker in a state park was mowing a trail when he came upon a huge canopy of spider webs suspended from the branches of trees lining the path.  The web was constructed of layers of sheets tens of feet across.  It buzzed with the noise of millions of mosquitoes dying on its sticky strands.  The web stretched over 200 meters.  It was over one hundred times larger than the typical work of social spiders.  Entomologists discovered that this collaborative project was the work of no fewer than twenty five species of spiders – the bulk of the weaving having been done by species normally considered to be solitary.  Another anomaly was that this web was constructed within two months, while other collaborative webs of this size have typically been established over a period of years.  It was as if hundreds of spiders woke up one day and decided to set aside their differences and their solitary tendencies and build this monumental project so as to feed their whole community – no matter what species they were.
What is our potential as humans to shift from working independently to meet our own needs, to transcending perceived differences in order to work for the greater good of the community?

The ghosts of revolution haunt the streets of Leon, Nicaragua.  There are murals and statues commemorating armed struggle and its heroes and martyrs throughout the city.
The Cathedral in Leon
On my second Retreat to Nicaragua with the Faithful Fools this past January, I was in Leon to get a taste of its history, to enrich the context of my experiences in that country's largest city, Managua, and the small farming village, San Diego, where we split the bulk of our two weeks in Nicaragua.
In a plaza across the street from Leon's old catholic cathedral, I was studying a huge mural when a woman approached and began explaining the painted symbols in Spanish simple enough that I could just barely understand.  The story the mural told began with Mayan artifacts eroding in the sand – evidence of the first civilization known to have claimed the land we were standing on.  Next were the helmet and long rifle of the Spanish conquistadors, who defeated the Mayans and claimed the country in 1524, and proceeded to establish the power of the Catholic Church.  Footprints in the sand represented the next 300 years, arriving at a document signed by William Walker, a North American mercenary, backed by U.S. Business interests, who invaded Nicaragua in 1854 and  declared himself president in 1856.  Though he only ruled for a year, Walker's presence in the mural represented decades of U.S. Military invasion and political influence culminating in the election of Anastasio Somoza in 1936.  Somoza and his family governed for over forty years; on the wall, a painted length of barbed wire half buried in the sand represented land the Somozas' had acquired for personal gain during their rule.  Across the wire were the tools of the Sandinista Revolution, which overthrew the Somoza regime on July 19, 1979, and beyond that a scene showing the Sandinistas turning in their weapons to go into the countryside to teach the people to read - in what was a truly impressive literacy campaign.  The final piece of the mural depicted children with a kite – my self-assigned tour guide said it represented the possibility of the future.
Mozaic in Leon depicting revolutionaries
It is was a beautiful mural, and though I have a hard time countenancing the violence, a beautiful story of a people reclaiming their resources – including their labor – for their own benefit after centuries of being exploited for the benefit of imperial powers.  My guide, who introduced herself as Maria Elena, was clearly proud of what her people had done, and wanted to share that dream with me, so I could help spread it to my people.  Which I suppose I am doing right now.
As Maria Elena and I sat down, I was feeling proud of being a part of this great story by being there in Nicaragua and having it told to me by someone who so obviously felt connected to it. 
Soon my Spanish began to reveal its limits as she tried to explain something I wasn't fully comprehending.  I was pretty sure she was describing how poor she was.  She then pulled out a packet of postcards, including some with striking photos from the revolution, and tried to sell them to me.  She also pulled out notes from other tourists recommending that I, or whoever she might be talking to, hire her as a tour guide.  My pride began to subside, my head came out of the clouds that held dreams of revolution, and I felt myself returning to a capitalist reality I have, for years, longed to escape.
The layers of irony were too thick for me to fully comprehend as I purchased five of her revolutionary postcards for a dollar apiece, and made a point to tell her that where I come from I can get postcards for less.

And it seems this is where revolutions often end up.  Movements start with the intent to redistribute wealth and power to those who had little of either and, time and time again, find themselves, once again, with people desperately lacking in what they need to survive.
It is important, of course, when looking at the Nicaraguan Revolution, to consider the role the US government played in its failure.  As those who were paying attention in the early 1980's, or later in the Oliver North trial, know, the CIA trained and financed the Contras, a counterrevolutionary army, to fight the Sandinista government. 
Sandinistas and some Nicaraguan scholars insist this war was responsible for the failure of the Revolution.  It certainly was a major factor in the 1990 election which removed the Sandinistas from power.

I believe change is possible.  So I am inclined not to reject revolution as a form doomed to failure, but to try to understand where it goes wrong, and how it can be made effective.  I find hope in the story of the spiders, who changed their way of being and working together, to the benefit of the community.  And as often happens with a good idea, this way of working spread.  Within two months of the discovery of the giant web, six more  were constructed in the region.

Nicaraguan Faithful Fools on Retreat

The first time I went on Retreat in Nicaragua, my host family asked me to rise early to eat breakfast with my host father, Fernando.  The first morning, I rose in the dark, wiped the sleep from my eyes, and sat down at the table with Fernando while his wife Daisy prepared the meal.  I really knew I was welcome, but with almost no Spanish at my disposal sitting with this friendly stranger felt awkward.  I just smiled, trying to say “sorry I don't understand” and “thank you for having me here” with just the shape of my face.  After it became clear I wasn't going to get anything he was trying to say, Fernando and I just sat and looked at one another, laughed a bit about our awkward situation, looked around the room a bit, and looked at each other again with friendly, hopeless smiles. 
Daisy soon rescued us by coming out of the kitchen with bowls of rice with something on top.  I say “something” because I wasn't sure what it was.  It looked suspiciously like chicken in a tomato sauce, but it couldn't be chicken.  I have been a vegetarian for over fifteen years, and those of us coming on the trip had talked several times about my diet, and how it would be no problem because of how much rice and beans our hosts eat.  I was sure Carmen, who organized the trip, had told my family that I didn't eat meat.
I was sure until I took my first bite.
I finished the bowl of chicken and rice, mindful I was making a first impression, and not wanting it to be “ungrateful gringo.”  Actually I didn't quite finish the bowl – I remembered Carmen saying that our hosts would take a clean plate as a signal that they hadn't provided enough food, and I wanted it to be clear that I didn't need any more chicken than they had already served me.

The only country in the western hemisphere with a lower per-capita income than Nicaragua is Haiti.  We ask the families that host the Faithful Fools in the barrio in Managua and in San Diego, the farming community we stay in, to feed us as they do themselves.  This has often meant, for me, eating less food than I am used to here at home.

It is pretty obvious that I'm not in need of a weight loss program.  In fact, this year before I left for Nicaragua a few friends mentioned that they thought I might have been losing weight – I got on the plane hoping not to accelerate this possible trend.

My host mother in the barrio this year was Lijia.  She lives with her two sons Roger and Erikson and her daughter Anna, as well as Anna's three boys, eight year-old Gustavo, Marlon, seven, and Minor, age 4.  She supports her family by frying plantains in a huge pot over an open fire and selling them in the mercado, at sporting events, and on the street.  She had also been the head of a soy kitchen that was in the community for a while a few years earlier.  I had reason to expect I would eat well at Lijia's house.

I was not disappointed.  My first meal consisted of steamed vegetables, fresh cheese, a few of Lijia's famous plantain chips, and gallo pinto, a traditional Nicaraguan red beans and rice dish.  I ate it wholeheartedly, politely leaving a little bit of each item on the plate.  It was good, and I was full – mission accomplished!  Maybe I wasn't going to lose weight on this trip after all.

Then I noticed what the boys were eating.  It didn't look to me like the feast I felt like I had been served.  “Well”, I thought, “when I was their age I was a picky eater.  Maybe they just don't like all these foods.  And they're a lot smaller than me – maybe they wouldn't want to eat this much.”  I wanted to feel okay about having taken what I did while they had what looked to me like so little.
I started doubting my justifications.  “What if they eat so little because they're used to eating so little?  Maybe they'd be bigger if they ate more.”  I tried to excuse myself from responsibility for worrying about what the boys ate.  My job was to be the guest: to gratefully receive what I was given and to show my appreciation by eating it enthusiastically.  Maybe.

The next day, Lijia specially made me some soy patties – sort of like miniature hamburgers - to eat with rice and some more delicious plantain chips.  She tried to feed them to the boys, but they wanted to stick to more familiar foods.  It seemed the boys were picky – maybe I didn't have to worry about how little they ate, after all.
Emboldened by that thought, my desire to be a grateful guest, and the pressure of my friends' concerns about my possible weight loss, I ate everything on my plate.  My Spanish, with the help of a dictionary, was good enough that I could just tell Lijia that I was full, and if she fed me a little more next time, that would be okay, too.

Then I noticed the pair of dogs that lived in the yard.  They kept the house safe at night – burglary is taken for granted in Managua – and unlike many neighbors' dogs, they kept quiet during the day.  Dog food is considered a luxury in Nicaragua; dogs are expected to forage in the garbage piles and eat scraps left from people's meals.  I was really struck by the dog's ribs, visibly pressing against their short-haired pelts.  Those dogs looked hungry, and the more I ate, the less they would eat.

I couldn't help but reflect on the messages that were floating through my head:  The message from my friends, who worried that I was looking skinnier – not that I was going hungry, or that I was genuinely unhealthy, but just that I looked that way.  The message I heard not just in my home, but in homes everywhere in the US: “clean your plate!”  A message I can't directly trace, but which I think pervades our culture, which says the way we show our gratitude for our blessings is to consume them wholly and wholeheartedly.

Let's sit with that one for a moment. 

I can certainly picture myself judging friends for being bashful about receiving gifts, or feeling awkward about how big their last raise was.  “It's okay, you deserve it,” I might tell them.
And isn't this value present in the policies of our current government:  that the US and its citizens are entitled to consume as much as we do because we can. 
If that means trade policies that take advantage of economically weaker nations - “it's okay, we deserve it.” 
If that means wars to secure oil resources - “it's okay, we deserve it.”

This sense of entitlement is familiar to us all.  And I believe most of us are generally aware of its negative consequences, and would like to do something about them.  We struggle to find a way to make a change which is meaningful.
But we are all a part of a system – social, economic, governmental, political – which supports us, some better, some worse, but which nonetheless supports us.  If this system were to undergo drastic change all at once, to become subject to revolution, let's say, many of us would experience what might feel like a disaster.  Lives would change, our access to resources would change.  We don't know what else might change, and that is scary.
Let me say that again:  For us, as a nation, a society, even just as a community, to make the kind of change that would feed the hungry dogs of the world and the hungry people, that would put a brake on wars over resources, that would preserve the environment – to make that kind of change is likely to involve changes that we don't feel we are ready for.  And that is scary.

I think many, if not all of us, yearn for that change, or at least see it as needed, but we are afraid of what we stand to lose.

The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua happened, in part, because so many of the people in that country had been treated so horribly by the Samozas and other people in power.  Most people could see that change for them was likely to be positive.  The reality is that many people gained a lot, but many others lost.  And much of what was gained was lost again.

Despite the broken promises made by so many revolutions – and we can all think of a few – I do still believe in change.  I used to be a revolutionary in the traditional sense – wanting the systems to be overturned, for power to change hands, so the powerless would become the powerful.  But we have seen time and again how the powerful, no matter what their roots are, tend to behave like the powerful.
As George Bernard Shaw said: “Revolutions have never lightened the burden of tyranny: they have only shifted it to another shoulder.”

So there must be another way.  And I would say it is for us to revolve, to turn, inward and seek change.  Not to overturn systems, and hope that the people they hold will be able to hold on, but to change ourselves, and to trust that the systems will change around us.  As we reflect on the world, and on our own role in it, we are guided toward the changes we need to impact on us, in order to change the world.
And it takes courage, to face yourself. 
And it takes courage, to change yourself. 
And it takes courage, especially, to do the work of changing yourself when it is the world outside you want to change.
And fortunately, your courage has company.  You are in a room full of people who have come to change themselves.
Look around.  See them.
Smile at them.
Go ahead, wave at them.
These are your comrades, your companeros, in the revolution.  And really, they are not just here, they are everywhere.  They are out on the streets, in the parks, in our workplaces, hidden away in hospital rooms – you can find them if you look, and if you signal them.  Smile at them, wave at them, say a kind word, and they will signal back, because to be successful, we must encourage each other. 
We cannot do this work alone, we must be engaged in the work of the world.  The world, in all its pain and injustice is our mirror, our guide to where we need to turn to make a change in ourselves.

I would like to close with another story, and an invitation. 
This story was famously told by Carl Jung about Richard Wilhelm, translator of the Taoist I Ching:

“A rainmaker was asked to come make rain for a village that was experiencing a long and devastating drought.  Though others had tried, no other holy man had been successful, and the village was on the edge of starvation.  The first thing the rainmaker did was to ask to be given a hut, into which he secluded himself for four days and four nights until it began to snow.
Of course, Wilhelm wanted to know how he had done this.  The rainmaker told him that when he came into the village he had noticed that the villagers were out of harmony with Heaven and Earth.  He had spent the four days bringing himself into harmony, and once he did that, the snow came.”

I wanted to invite you all to join me in a Nicaraguan lunch this afternoon, but that would be dangerously close to communion, and Unitarians don't do communion, right?  Oh, except for the Transylvanians.  Well, a much more UU way to do it would be for us all to go have our own interpretation of a Nicaraguan meal.  But if you want to join me after the silent auction at my favorite Nicaraguan restaurant, just ask me where it is, and I'll see you there.

One more message of hope as we navigate a sometimes bleak political landscape in this country:  The spiders who spontaneously began to work together to weave the giant communal webs – they were all Texans!

May the fibers of connection we all weave together be strong!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


Pinturas painting in the Casa Misionera
One day in a primatology class at UC San Diego, as she was teaching the class, my professor kept glancing at the clock on the wall, until the entire class had looked away to see what it was she was looking at. She did this to illustrate a basic primate behavior – we all want to see what others in our species see. We can see this phenomenon in blockbuster movies, where people go to see the film “everyone is watching”, and which has the huge lines outside the theaters. When I was growing up, I heard stories of people in the Soviet Union lining up at stores just because they figured, if everyone was lining up, there MUST be something good for sale. I like to imagine this extends to a deeper level, and we also want to see things as others see them – to understand how they understand the world (I know I want to).

Two days after I arrived in Managua, I was cementing a concrete utility lid into the sidewalk, as such items have cash value, and are sometimes known to disappear in this cash-poor neighborhood. As I was pulling errant gravel from the garden out of the crack around the lid where the cement would go, two little girls came up to me to ask what I was doing. I don't know whether it was the braid on my face or head, or the remnants of nail polish on my fingers and toes, but they also asked if I was an artist. I gave my standard reply to that question – that I believe we are all artists. They then asked if they could help. We continued digging the rocks out of the cracks, and were soon joined by two boys. When it came time to spread the cement, using the best tool I could improvise – a piece of cardboard, we all took turns, with occasional ayudantitos digging right in with their fingers.

The next afternoon, one of the girls showed up at my door, and came in to look around the house. She asked me a few questions about myself and the house, and I did my best to answer them despite not understanding all the words she used, nor the words I thought my answers needed. As I sensed she was looking for something to do aside from leave, I offered that I had some books we could read. We sat in the rocking chairs, and took turns reading; me fumbling through the Spanish, her making up stories based on the pictures in the books.

Paintings on the fridge

As we were putting the books away, she noticed the poster paint stored in the cabinet, and now she wanted to paint. Not long after we began painting, she went out into the street and returned with three other children, and we spent the rest of the day painting and playing games. The children kept me busy portioning out cups of paint and whatever one-sided used paper I could find in the house, hanging pictures on the clothesline to dry, and trying to resolve minor disputes without the words to do so while, my friend Jerry did some cleaning and slept on the couch and Heidi and Mercedes, leaders in the Bufones Fieles community in Managua, talked religion and philosophy over cups of coffee.

Though slightly overwhelmed by the chaos, I was immensely grateful for how the Casa Misionera had become almost exactly what I had hoped for in just a couple days. I am also filled with wonder at how eager people of all ages seem to be for something useful to do, even something as simple as cementing a lid, and how that can be an entry into relationship. Sometimes as I walk the streets or talk to people at work, or the store, or a party, I feel like we are all waiting for someone to open the door and let us out of a culture that tries to confine us to an identity as consumers, and into a culture of helping, and the wonderful connections that abound in that world.

How great it is to be offered help, and how great it can be to be asked!
Pinturas with their favorite paintings of the day.  Click here to see more artwork.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Throwing stones

“Buenas!” is the greeting we use in Nicaragua to announce our arrival at someone's house – no one has doorbells, and you usually arrive at a fence or gate, which isn't great for knocking.  It is also what people say as they arrive at the pulpuria next to the Casa Misionera, and I still haven't mastered hearing the difference between a “buenas!” at my door and the bank-teller like window where people buy the wares of the pulpuria.  This has me, in my desire to be a welcoming presence in the barrio, frequently answering doors that aren't really for me and getting to see who has come to the store my neighbor Gladys keeps in her house.

Mostly there are kids.  School is out, so the children accompany their parents, or get sent on errands, or are offered a couple cordoba for candy or gum.  When kids come to the pulpuria, they play in our front yard.  We put down gravel over the hard-packed dirt that surrounds a handful of jungle plants planted there, which has inspired a new game: Throw The Rocks.

One day I decided to join the juganderos, a girl of about six and a boy closer to four years old.  They were playing the current favorite version of the game: Throw the Rocks in the Hole.  I grabbed a small handful and began tossing rocks into the hole in the sidewalk.  I didn't find it very challenging, so I tried to ask the children how it was for them.  Through the screen of my very limited Spanish, I got the impression that it wasn't amazing for them either.  I then tried to explain that the logical end of this game was going to be all the rocks in the hole, and none on the garden, which I thought would be no fun at all.  I tried to teach them to juggle the rocks, but they weren't finding the challenge of throwing and catching the small stones worth the amusement it offered.  They preferred challenging me to juggle four rocks, which had a similar lack of payoff for me.  After a few minutes they took off, all of us smiling.

This leaves me wanting to find a new game to play with the stones.  I want the kids to feel like the Casa is a resource for them, as is its intended purpose.  As a resource, I also want it to be something that the children feel encouraged to take care of.  I wonder if helping the kids find a way to play in the yard can be a part of a process of seeing all of the community's (and the world's) resources as available for use and worth taking care of.  I don't pretend that finding a new game here will, by itself, keep these kids from becoming the robbers who are spoken of so often in the barrio, or from becoming the robbers-with-ties my neighbor Max talks about.  I do feel like it is worth trying to make a difference in every small way I can, and getting to look out for evidence of changes down the line.

As of right now my leading idea is to start a rock-stacking contest...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Welcome to Managua

Flying into Managua at night, the city lights twinkle like a vast net of X-mass lights – alternating yellow and white lights pop up from behind jungle trees as the plane glides by. In mid-January the government's X-mass light displays are still up in major intersections. Managua is unlike any other city I have flown into because it is so flat – almost no buildings over one story have been built since the earthquake in 1972, and there are barely any downtown high-rises.
The sprawling sea of single-family homes reminds me of L.A., but it feels different to me than L.A., where the sprawl means so many cars and freeways, and isolation.  In Managua, the homes are much smaller, and people rely almost completely on buses and taxis to get around.  People are out in the streets with each other – waiting for buses, hailing taxis, walking, shopping at open-air stalls, selling water, watches or treats off of their own backs. The small homes are right up against each other, too; not only can you hear your neighbor's house, at night you can hear your neighbor's neighbor's house as if it is your own.  Somehow, even the walls and grated windows don't seem to separate us so much. We all have them, and we are all held prisoner to the intense shortage of material wealth in the western hemisphere's second poorest country.  Rich and poor, we all have something someone else might want, and might walk off with, given the chance.

My first night alone in the Casa Misionera was not an easy sleep.  I was conscious that we had not had water in days, and needed to be alert for the sound of the pipes trickling or of my neighbors collecting water themselves – a pump running or the splash of buckets filling storage barrels.  All I heard in the end was cats crawling across the roof, the wind through the trees, and the sounds of dogs barking and people blowing whistles in the deserted streets – I've been told the whistles are robbers communicating in some secret code, which intrigues me greatly.
The water did not come – leaving me to ask myself how much I really need, and how much trust I should have that it will come before the reserves are used up.

Welcome to Managua!

Saturday, January 8, 2011


Happy New Year!

I start this writing project as part of my reflection process this year, reflecting on journeys, walking, my recent work with the Faithful Fools and the 2010 Census, time spent in Nicaragua, in wilderness, and on the streets of cities throughout the US and the world. I write because I want my action to be strong, purposeful, effective, and adaptive, and reflection and action nurture each other as they grow together. Thank you for taking the time to enter this reflection with me, whenever it is you found the time to read this.

As I write and work this year, I want to start with following ideas as my guideposts: 1) things aren’t as bad as they seem, 2) I (and therefore everyone) can make a difference, 3) personal experience is the most direct path to truth. I pose these ideas as questions, hypotheses to test through experiment, contemplation, and discussion. I invite you to join me in these tests, and encourage you to conduct your own experiments, contemplation, and discussion, and to share your results with me!
Let me take a moment to flesh these ideas out a bit, so we can watch for them together as I continue my reflection:
1) Things aren’t as bad as they seem. I spent yesterday morning, as I do most mornings in San Francisco, listening to news on the radio. The news, as we know, is overwhelmingly negative: wars, crime, injustice, political fights, and disasters predominate. It is easy to hear all of this and feel like the world is in bad shape, and when compounded by pain and difficulty in my own life and the lives of those close to me, I can sometimes feel despair creep in. It is important to hear the news of the world’s problems, and that of my friends and loved ones, and to feel the pain of loss and outrage at injustice. At literally the same time, it is important to remember that the world and its people are beautiful, and that rays of hope are working to pierce every dark cloud – when I do, it feels like things aren’t as bad as they seem.
2) I (and therefore everyone) can make a difference. As mentioned above, all is not right with this world. It follows that some things can change for the better. A good friend has cancer – I can help, by laughing with her, more directly by helping her get to doctor’s appointment, or in some other ways she and I can dream up. There is no reason to think I can cure her disease, but I can make a difference in her life. There is a bumper sticker advising us to “Think globally, act locally.” The kind of small difference I can make in one person’s life changes the world only in that the world is made up of people (and other living and non-living things) and many people making these small changes can add up to a larger change. If I am thinking globally (or scaling up to community, city, state or nation) as I am acting locally, I may be led into associated action that can have a larger-scale effect.
3) Personal experience is the most direct path to truth. We learn in so many different ways: some things we are taught, shown or told, some we come to understand through imagining in thought experiments, and others are experienced. Over the course of my life, a tremendous amount of information has been given to me by various authorities: by my parents, teachers, and elders, in books, films, TV shows and songs, and through the news, among other sources. It has been crucial at times for me to accept the accuracy of this information, and I have been taught to believe these authorities. What if the information I gather from experience conflicts with the information given to me by authorities? I propose that my own experience is more valid for me than information given to me by authority figures, and that the closer someone is to actual experience, the more credibility I should lend them. If a farmer in Nicaragua tells me his crop yields have declined since he began using a pesticide, I should listen to him over the scientist in the U.S. who tells me the pesticide is good for growing crops in Nicaragua.

Thanks again for joining me in this journey, and in advance for helping guide and deepen it.
Until next time…
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